The mayor of Los Angeles was all for it, and so was the president of the school board. Fourteen City Council members thought it was a terrific idea, as did an array of county and state legislators. Such notables as author Ray Bradbury and actor Charlton Heston campaigned for its passage.
Most Los Angeles voters were for it, too--514,588 to be exact.
But the measure on the city ballot Tuesday that would have authorized $90 million in bonds for public libraries nevertheless failed. Because it would have meant a property tax increase, Proposition L required a two-thirds majority. With a yes vote of 62.4%, it just missed.
The vote result means that a financial plan to build four new branch libraries, to reopen two branches closed by earthquake and to reinforce and expand 15 branches against future temblors has suddenly come apart.
It also means that the City Council will have to take $36.6 million away from other programs to pay for the city’s share of the expansion and restoration of historic, fire-damaged Central Library.
Why did Proposition L fall short? On Wednesday, fingers were pointing at Councilman Nate Hol den, the only official to oppose the measure. As for Holden, he was patting himself on the back.
“I feel great about it,” Holden declared. “I view this victory as a defeat against City Hall. . . . It’s almost like when I ran against City Hall and the people elected me. They said they wanted me to be their watchdog, and that’s what I’m doing.”
There is reason to believe that the stubborn, first-term councilman from the 10th District was the difference. He was, after all, the only council member to oppose Proposition L; the only person to submit ballot arguments against the measure. He spent about $10,000, he said, buying ads to urge a no vote.
As it turned out, of the three bond measures on the city ballot, only Proposition L received less than a two-thirds vote. Proposition M, which provides $1.5 billion for sewer system upgrading, received 75% of the vote. Proposition N, which provided money to improve the Fire Department’s communication system, got 70%.
Unlike Proposition L, no arguments were submitted against either Proposition M or Proposition N.
It is not that Holden is anti-library--he wanted to make that clear. In fact, Holden said, it is because he supports libraries that he opposed the library measure.
What bothered him was, in a sense, the fine print on a contract that has not been written--a proposed sale-leaseback of the Central Library to provide tax breaks to private investors.
Under the concept, the city would raise $10 million to $25 million by negotiating a sale-leaseback of the library to private investors, who could claim tax credits because of their participation in the restoration of a historic building. After the period of contract elapses, the investors would be required to sell the building back to the city, according to the plan.
Holden--whose own district would have gained a library and had three others repaired--warns that “this wild financial scheme” could put the cherished Central Library in the hands of a private party forever. Every other official disagrees with Holden, saying it is a simple matter of providing safeguards in the contract.
While Holden took satisfaction in his victory, his colleagues suggested it was a hollow one.
“I’m heartsick,” said Councilwoman Joy Picus, whose district will have to keep waiting for a new library.
“I’m probably more disappointed seeing that go down than any other single item on the ballot,” said Councilman Hal Bernson, whose district was overdue for two new branches.
“The losers are the kids in Watts,” said Councilwoman Joan Milke Flores, referring to a library in her district that would have been expanded. “We have this great literacy program, and there just isn’t enough room.”
Library officials say they will have to start over. Proposition L, they thought, would have been a bargain for the voters. To raise the money, the average property tax bill would have gone up only 69 cents per month per $110,000 in assessed valuation, officials said.
Keith Comrie, the city’s chief administrative officer, said that defeats like this one explain why there is a growing movement among local officials to get election laws changed so that a simple majority can carry a measure.
“I really don’t think it’s a democratic process to let a minority rule,” Comrie said. “What you’re saying is its one-third-plus-one is enough . . . I think the time has come clearly that we should have a majority vote. I don’t understand why local government is hamstrung by minority control.”
Moreover, the irony is that even though Holden won the battle of Proposition L, the sale-leaseback proposal is still very much a live possibility.
“What’s he gained?” Bernson said. “Nothing really. . . . I disagree with him, but he’s sincere. I’m sure he meant well in his own mind.”